Jazz sous les pommiers 2014

Spotlight

I’m just back from Jazz sous les pommiers, a long-established festival in the small town of Coutances, Normandie, where I was lucky enough to be invited as the UK Coordinator of a Franco-British collaborative project called Jazz Shuttle. It was a short stay – only two days – but packed with discoveries and emotions, so I wanted to commit them to memory before going back to the rest of my activities (mainly more jazz and more festivals right now).

The festival takes its names from the ancient apple trees – pommiers – on the town square, under which it all started 33 years ago. It’s a busy week-long festival, with over 50 indoor gigs that represent a wide spectrum of contemporary jazz, as well as daily outdoor amateur showcases and street theatre. It’s a remarkably well-run event that attracts a huge (and fiercely loyal) audience: 37,000 in 2010, in a town that counts 9,000 inhabitants year-round. As hotels fill up quickly, the tourism board has developed a bed & breakfast system with local residents who have a spare bedroom to rent. That’s just one of the festival initiatives that transform the way audiences access the music; I picked up below my personal musical and experiential highlights.

Jazz & Châteaux 

On Friday morning, I got up early to embark on a coach tour of the Normandie countryside and take in two concerts in unusual venues.

First stop was the 17th-century Château de Cerisy de la Salle, where the famous annual Colloques de Cerisy, an influential series of academic conferences on literature, philosophy, science and society, have been hosted since 1952. After an enlightening introduction about the Cultural Centre by its current director Edith Heurgon, Rhizottome (Armelle Dousset, bisonoric chromatic accordion & Matthieu Metzger, sopranino sax) performed their singular interpretations of traditional dances in the castle’s barn.

The second castle was the 16th-century Château de Canisy, self-styled “world’s oldest B&B”, a grandiose setting with a small formal theatre space, fully draped in pale gold, where vibraphonist Frank Tortiller gave a solo performance.

The total round-trip was just over 3 hours long and offered an interesting collective experience: all on board a school bus borrowed by the festival for the occasion, chatting away and letting ourselves get driven to the gigs, with no worries of being late or getting lost. I found it immensely relaxing and conducive to attentive listening. In previous years, the festival offered similar programming linking music and heritage on foot and by bike, paired with cider and cheese tasting (which sounds even more appealing, but probably more tricky to organise weather-wise for a late Spring festival).

Magic Mirrors

Magic mirrors is the French name of what is called Spiegeltent in English – which comes from the Dutch term for ‘mirror tent’: a good example of European linguistic mélange.

This was finally my chance to experience the magical world of these travelling performing spaces, originally built in Belgium at the end of the 19th century as mobile dance halls. They come complete with wooden floors, a raised stage, a bar and a circular central standing space surrounded by stalls. They are decorated with stained glass, mirrors, velvet and brocade, in a fairly exuberant and circus-like Art Nouveau style. There are still a few of the original 1920s tents touring the world, as well as new modern ones.

Salon Revue - dancefloor view

‘Magic Mirrors’ – view from the dance floor

Salon Revue - Stalls

‘Magic Mirrors’ – Side Stalls

I saw two gigs there, including an all-star medley led by touche-à-tout Thomas de Pourquery, current artist-in-residence at Jazz sous les pommiers (a 3-year tenure during which musicians can immerse themselves in the local community and develop participatory projects). With his ‘Beautiful Freaks’, a bunch of musicians from varied musical horizons, he turned the Magic Mirrors into a cabaret-disco, a fitting use of the venue.

Laurent de Wilde’s ‘Fly’

My third space-and-music experience was in Coutances’ brand new arthouse cinema, which is fitted with what must be the most comfortable seats in the world.

On stage, Laurent de Wilde on grand piano faces electronic musician and improviser Otisto 23, who samples, reworks and loops the piano sounds with his electronic machines. Encircling them, panels of translucent fabric hang from a circular curtain pole, providing a 3-dimensional projection surface for video artist Nico Ticot (aka XLR)’s mesmerising visuals.

Neither my description nor the video above (filmed in 2010 at the New Morning) really do justice to the experience created by these three collaborating artists, but it was interesting to hear from Laurent that they have performed in all sorts of settings – namely in China’s Forbidden City and on a beach in La Réunion: like the Magic Mirrors, another travelling experience that takes the audience on a journey into its own world wherever it lands.

A Problem Shared…

Tools of the Trade

Arts organisations use all sorts of office settings, from small and casual bolt-holes to grand, more formal venues. Physical environment clearly influences productivity and mood of the team, so space and resources need to be adequate.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done, with rent taking such a big chunk out of a company’s budget. But there’s another way to look at the question of space for arts organisations: rent could be a good investment in a mutually beneficial creative environment, so that a building becomes an active player in a particular city’s cultural ecology.

Co-working, shared workspaces and cultural hubs are on the rise because they solve problems. For example, a hot desk at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (known locally as CSI) starts at CAD75 a month – and comes with a business address, mail delivery, 24/7 access and shared services such as free wifi, free coffee, cheap printing and meeting rooms. This can offer a low-cost, temporary solution for an organisation trying to bounce back after reductions in income.

The venue management publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.

And for added value, members get to be part of a thriving community of freelancers and entrepreneurs, both not-for-profit and for-profit, from a variety of sectors. An internal communications system, networking events of all types and sizes and a big communal kitchen allow members to constantly exchange services, contacts and ideas.

CSI started with 14 founding tenants in 2004 and now has three locations in Toronto and one in New York, so it’s clearly working. It’s a social enterprise that acts as a community enabler, not a commercial landlord draining away resources.

The management team publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects, runs a micro-loan fund and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.

There are other models out there, other ways to turn office rent into community investment. Also in Toronto, 401 Richmond is a 200,000 sq ft historic warehouse renovated under the principles of eco-restoration and openly inspired by Jane Jacobs (‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings’).

Current tenants include over 140 cultural producers and micro-enterprises: 12 galleries, artists, designers and architects, a music shop, a bookshop, many arts festivals and environmental and civic agencies.

The management company, Urbanspace, organises tenant-led Nuit Blanche events and open studio days, and services include an arts-based childcare centre, a friendly café and a luxuriant rooftop garden. Here too, the community is based on shared values, and tenants are selected – from a long waiting list – to contribute to the creative mix.

Still in Toronto, Artscape, a registered not-for-profit organisation founded in 1986, manages several buildings that offer affordable live/work studios for artists, offices for arts and civic organisations, and performance and exhibition spaces at a discounted rate for charities.

They have also developed models and tools for creative placemaking. The latest Artscape building, a 75,000 sq ft renovated primary school, hosts a wide range of tenants, including artists and musicians, a large multidisciplinary arts festival, a youth-focused grant-making organisation, a world music promoter and a few more in between. The hallways and stairwells – nearly 10,000 sq ft over three floors – are used as exhibition spaces, and an independent café has set up shop on the ground floor.

Open studios at Artscape Youngplace Opening  Photo- Garrison McArthur Photographers

These three examples in Toronto have strong links: one of the founders of CSI is the president of 401 Richmond, who was in turn inspired by Artscape. All took time to develop and mature, which is why they have deep roots in the local cultural ecology.

Creative placemaking, connected networks and sustainable platforms can enable artists and arts organisations to adapt to a changing environment.

If you’re thinking of pooling resources to save money and find creative synergies, existing models are there to provide ideas and inspiration, and they tend to share openly their history and principles.

They’ve enabled and inspired countless projects on their home ground, and I’m hoping that these insights will be useful to cultural innovators in other cities and countries.

This article was originally published in International Arts Manager.